Wearables in Wellness: The Next Step in Corporate Health Care

Workers Take the Stairs for HealthThe Great Recession was characterized by layoffs, pay freezes, and spending cuts, but one part of Corporate America managed to dodge slashed budgets and even see considerable growth in the economic downturn: wellness programs. In 2005, 27% of companies offered wellness programs to employees; in 2011, that number rose to 44% and in 2013, more than 90% of companies offered a health improvement program for their workers (Fidelity and National Business Group, 2/20/14). Wellness programs have grown into a $6 billion industry, and Fidelity estimates that spending on these plans will increase by 15% this year.

Although growing rapidly, wellness programs are a relatively new addition to benefits packages, and a consensus on whether they merit the cost has not been reached. One study from Harvard found that for the 36 large companies they analyzed, company medical costs fell by $3.27 for every dollar spent on wellness programs (Harvard Business Review, 2/21/14). Academy Health published research on PepsiCo's wellness program, the Healthy Living Program, which examined the plan for seven years after its introduction in 2003 – the longest study of a wellness initiative. The report found that the program did reduce health care costs; however, costs savings took three years to materialize and the bulk of the savings came from disease management, which targets helping employees with chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes, not from lifestyle management, which focuses on nutrition, fitness, and smoking cessation (Academy Healthy, 2/26/14).

Recently, corporate wellness programs have started going digital to track the progress of employee health goals that qualify them for incentives. Many companies issue laptops and cell phones to their employees, but now some businesses have started giving staff wearable fitness devices to more efficiently measure an employee's health, including nutrition, exercise, and sleep patterns. Fitbit, Nike FuelBand, Jawbone Up bands, and a variety of other gadgets are starting to become common apparel in the workplace. ABI Research estimates that within the next five years, more than 13 million wearable devices will be incorporated into wellness plans (ABI Research, 10/13).

Fitbit for Corporate Wellness ProgramsJames Park, CEO of Fitbit, says corporate programs are the fastest-growing part of his business; Fitbit now works with 30 Fortune 500 companies to integrate wearable technology into their wellness agendas. BPAmerica introduced company-issued Fitbits last year as part of its program. According to BP, 90% of employees participate in the voluntary health-initiative, and the technology has improved the morale and health of the employees as well as lowering the insurance rates for the company and for individuals. BP is not the only company encouraging individuals (and management) to track their health. The multinational software company Autodesk also introduced wearable technology into their health program and had more than 50% of employees opt to use the devices. Smaller companies are also starting to introduce wearable gadgets as an avenue to promote health as well as improve the company culture. Buffer, a start-up social media firm, gives Jawbone Up devices to all of its employees, and Biosyntrx employees in Colorado come daily armed with a Fitbit on their wrist.

Wearable devices that track health not only allow employees to monitor their activity, food, and sleep patterns, but also inspire friendly competition between staff to meet their goals. Employees at Bates College, which issues Fitbits to workers, started to see who could park furthest away from the office to get the most activity points for their "Ready, Set, Go" competition, even during a harsh New England winter.

Wearable technology allows for greater data accuracy, tracks progress and behavior changes, and can also boost social connection. But some worry what will happen to the health data compiled by a wearable device. Is the data owned by the employee or by the company? Can it be sold or shared with third parties? How does the data collected relate to HIPAA? Would the results have any bearing on an employee's performance review? As a new evolution in corporate wellness programs, the merits of wearable tech in the workplace are still uncertain and the questions that their data collection raises also have yet to be answered.

Readers, would you want your company to offer a wearable fitness device? Why or why not? Answer our reader question this week and we'll send you a free pedometer to make sure you're getting your 10,000 steps a day!


Consumer Needs Over Company Gains

An interesting news story hit the press a couple of weeks ago when pharmacy giant CVS stated that the company will discontinue the sale of tobacco products. Immediate speculations about the company's bottom line were thrown around, and some are wondering if this move will cause CVS customers that smoke or use tobacco to stop shopping at the store altogether. While CVS will lose an estimated $1.5 billion in annual tobacco sales, this company may have just gained the respect and consumership of other customers due to their move to become a leader in retail health care products as well as pharmacy services.

The decision to make a drastic change in company operations is always a tough one. Who will like the change? Will there be more supporters than those who oppose? Will this cause the company to lose enough money to fall behind its competitors? These are some questions that may have been asked during the process of making the decision to end tobacco sales in CVS stores, and there are many foreseeable pros and cons to the situation.

Some customers will appreciate the change while others will not. Consumers who feel tobacco products harm anyone that comes into contact with them will likely be impressed and may even go out of their way to shop at the store more. However, those who use tobacco products may resort to never shopping at a CVS for non-tobacco items, even if it is convenient. On both sides, there are consumers whose lives are not affected by tobacco products but will still have opinions that inform their decisions of whether or not to shop at CVS.

In an interview with CVS President and CEO Larry Merlo, consumer health seemed to be the major concern of the company. Merlo said in the interview, "I think everybody came to the right decision. It's a real contradiction to talk about all the things we're doing with people to help them on their path to better health and at the same time sell tobacco products." While some consumers still want to be able to buy tobacco products, Merlo also addresses the fact that many cigarette smokers have the goal of quitting, and this decision will help them on that path. Click the photo to watch the full interview with CBS News.

CVS certainly seems to have their consumers' health and best interests at heart, but this decision could actually bring them more business and strengthen profits in the future. While the chain will take an initial cut of $1.5billion from tobacco sales and another $500 million from products purchased with tobacco transactions, this decision could also bring more future revenue from other health-related programs. The company's long-term success as a pharmacy and health care provider is likely to be boosted by the discontinuation of tobacco sales. CVS can now direct attention and marketing efforts previously used for tobacco products toward an area more in line with helping consumers manage their health.

Bold moves are essential to growth, which is made obvious by innovative companies such as Apple and Starbucks, who are constantly adapting to their consumers. It is not yet certain whether this decision could hinder CVS's growth as a company, but it is likely that this could open many doors for them as they lead the way in retail health products. It is also refreshing to learn about companies whose concern for consumers and their best interest trumps a few years of lowered sales revenues.

Readers: How do you feel about this decision? Do you shop at CVS?

Office Ergonomics – An Important New Year Priority

Do you have your work station set up for maximum health? No matter your working situation, you may be putting extra pressure on some parts of your body, causing muscle or bone aches, fatigue, or even worse effects that could lead to severe injury. Amid our New Year's Resolutions to diet and exercise and save money, we should keep in mind the unhealthy habit of not paying enough attention to our posture and body mechanics while working. With that in mind, TradePost would like to offer up a guide to setting yourself and your team members up for comfort and safety, no matter what type of environment you work in.

If you sit at a computer:

Here is a great diagram from OSHA (The Occupational Safety and Health Administration) about the ideal way to set up your computer station. The main points are:

  • You may be sitting at a desk all day looking at a screen. If so, make sure to place the top or your screen at eye level. You can use monitor stands or risers to do so.
  • Be sure to choose a chair with lower back support, and raise it high enough so that your forearms are level while typing. It is also best to choose a chair with elbow support.
  • Place your mouse and keyboard at a comfortable distance.
  • Stay relaxed while working and try to notice when you begin to tense up.
  • If you are able, make sure to get up and stretch or walk around frequently in order to relieve tension.
  • Always keep important items close enough to touch without straining. If you cannot, stand up to retrieve them.

If you stand on your feet:

  • If you are on your feet all day and work at a standing desk or an assembly line, the first priority is to support your body by wearing proper shoes. Heels or shoes with little arch support are not good for you. Tennis shoes or any other flat-soled shoe with plenty of cushion are preferred.
  • Remember to not lock your knees while standing in one spot for a long time. This can cause knee injuries and fatigue and can even cause you to faint!
  • Do not slouch. Instead, stand up straight with your shoulders over your ankles in order to avoid back problems.
  • Make sure to set up your computer, standing desk, or working table to accommodate your height so that you do not have to reach up or bend over to complete your work.

All Work Environments

The following rules will assist you in any work environment.

  • Take breaks. Everyone needs to shake out the tension or take a seat a few times throughout the day. If you often forget to do this, set an alarm or reminder to do this every hour.
  • If it hurts, change it. If you feel your knees are hurting you, take a look at the shoes you are wearing or how you stand. If your back hurts, perhaps your chair is not offering enough support. In short, when your work starts to hurt you, find a solution.
  • Help identify possible hazards in your workplace. If you notice your coworker sitting for long periods with no break, offer to take a short walk around the building together. Help your team members stay healthy by inviting them to take part in your solution in a friendly way.
  • If you don't know how to do it, go to the experts. OSHA has great tips, and so do many other organizations, such as the National Institutes of Health. Here is their web page for ergonomics at work.

We can all help each other stay happy and healthy at work by paying attention to those hazards we often neglect. Let your team know that keeping them safe and healthy is a top priority!

Tell us about your work station! How do you have it set up for comfort?

Staying Healthy during the Holiday Season

We all know how tough it is to keep up with our diets and exercise routines when coworkers are constantly bringing in baked goods, candy, and other yummy treats. Being healthy is not only essential to maintaining our waistlines, but there is plenty of research out there to suggest that staying healthy helps improve productivity and reduces the number of sick days employees take. Of course, everyone is entitled to some sick time, but preventing days off needed due to illness is better for your company, and remaining focused during work hours is also a key factor in getting through this busy season. We have some ideas for keeping up a healthy lifestyle at work and at home. Managers, be sure to post or forward this to your team to encourage them to be their healthiest, even during this sweet season!

  • Do not walk by the communal candy bowl unless you need to. Having "just one" piece of candy a few times a day can add up to over 200 calories! Many offices don't even have these until the holidays roll around, and then they are always full. Do yourself a favor and walk that way only when you absolutely need to.
  • When your coworker brings in goodies, use the three-bite rule. Three bites of your favorite cookie or cake is enough to satisfy a craving. Don't want to be rude? No problem! Ask another health-conscious coworker to split it with you.
  • Account for some sweets in your daily caloric allowance. It is okay to have some leeway with your diet. The point is to not get out of control. Allow yourself one small cookie or one piece of candy for the day. This will help you feel that you are not depriving yourself, but setting a low limit will prevent you from going overboard.
  • Write down what you eat. Keeping a food journal seems to help many people pay attention to the amount of food and beverages they take in, as well as the amount of calories consumed each day. When you watch the numbers add up, you will be less likely to overconsume.
  • Substitute something better for what you are craving. When you see your coworkers bring in sweets or candy, grab an apple or other piece of fruit. This is still sweet, but is much better nutritionally and will not contain the amount of fat and processed sugars that most candy and sweets have. Just make sure to bring these with you to the office!
  • Avoid them whenever possible. Finally, these rules should apply to the rest of your life if you want to be successful while you are at the office. If you have self control while you are at home and do not overeat or indulge too much in less healthy options, you will be more successful at work. Give your best effort all the time!

The holiday season is tough with so much going on, employees taking vacations, and the constant access to treats. However, with some effort, you and your team can avoid those extra pounds and sick days that come with overconsumption of sugar. We also recently wrote about staying active during this season, which can further help you and your staff to remain healthy (TradePost, 10/25/12).

Readers: What tips can you offer to those who need help staying healthy during the holidays?

Office Cleanliness

Does your company have a policy that requires others to clean up after themselves? Perhaps you have a cleaning company or maid come in every week or two to vacuum, clean the bathrooms, and take care of those spider webs. This is all very good, but did you know that what could be lurking in the more hard-to-reach and forgotten areas in your office can cause a serious problem for your teams' health? Safety is not just an issue of clutter and making the decision not to stand on a swivel chair to change a light bulb. No, safety also means caring for your staff's health.

We have previously discussed how much it can cost companies when workers take time off due to illness (TradePost, 4/18/13). While there are many illnesses that are difficult to avoid and often cannot be prevented, there are also many causes of sickness that can. The easiest way to prevent the spread of germs is to keep things clean. We don't just mean tidy, either. Sure, your desk may be very organized, but when is the last time you wiped your keyboard and phone with an antibacterial wipe? Other communal places, such as the copier and fax machine, can harbor many germs, and they often are overlooked as places that need to be cleaned. While your cleaning crew may do a great job with obvious places like the restroom, these other places are busy offering free rent to every germ that each person of your staff has touched.

Starting to get the picture? Now think of how many times per day you touch these items. We spend several hours a day at our jobs, so we interact with other people and equipment for a significant portion of our lives. After adding up all the possible germs in your office, and then realizing how much each person is exposed to them, it begins to sound like a horror show!

Thankfully, our bodies can fight off many infections per day, and washing our hands can be another line of defense. There are also some things you can do. First, ask your staff to bring in antibacterial wipes, or you can bring in a few packages for everyone. Travel sizes of them are available at most drug stores. Then, assign each person an area to wipe clean once per week. Johnny can take care of the copier, and Suzie can wipe all the handles to the file cabinets, and so on. Then, instruct them also to wipe their own desks once per week. That includes the phone, keyboard, mouse, any buttons on personal equipment, and handles to their desk drawers. Assigning each person one simple area to take care of will ensure that no person feels singled out, and this system will help to eliminate many of those unwanted bacteria that crowd your workplace every day.

It is very easy to overlook keeping your workspace clean when it is not your own home, or someone else is hired to care for it. However, with just a little bit of extra effort on everyone's part, your office will be much freer of illnesses caused by lingering bacteria. This will ensure that your staff remains healthier for most of the year and will cause less stress for everyone as they will not have to worry about covering coworkers' responsibilities due to them calling out sick on a regular basis.

Readers: How do you keep your workplace clean?

June Jobs Report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics' June Employment Situation Summary showed better-than-expected numbers that included 195,000 new nonfarm payroll jobs. The unemployment rate stayed at 7.6%. The long-term unemployment rate moved slightly downward – from 37.3% to 36.7%.

Among nonfarm payroll increases, the leisure and hospitality industry added 75,000 jobs, a large increase over its monthly average this year of 55,000. Professional and business services added 53,000 jobs. Retail contributed 37,000 new jobs, health care gained 20,000, and financial establishments added 17,000. Temporary help services added 10,000 jobs. Federal employment continues to decrease, losing 5,000 jobs.

The continued positive growth was hailed by the White House. Notes Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, "Over the past three years, the pace of job growth has increased each year. So far this year, 1.23 million private sector jobs have been added."

The jobs report comes on the heels of an announcement this week by President Obama that the "pay or play" mandate of the Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) will be delayed by one year to give the administration more time to ensure a smooth transition into the new policies. This decision came as a great relief to many businesses with uncertainty over how they were going to handle the law's implementation in their organizations.

Workplace Wellness

Being healthy at home and in one's personal life is becoming one area of focus for many companies across the United States. However, we often forget about keeping ourselves well throughout the working day. With an estimated $576 billion lost in the U.S. economy due to illness, disability, and workers' compensation (Forbes, 9/12/12), the need for staying healthy at work is at an all-time high. We have some tips for staying health-conscious in the workplace.

Take breaks. Stress causes an incredible amount of illness and can also distract workers, making workplace injuries much more likely. Taking a breather between projects will also boost productivity. Take a quick walk outside or lay your head down for a moment in order to reduce workplace stress.

Eat healthier and drink water. It is very easy to hit your favorite burger joint at lunchtime or even to skip lunch due to a heavy workload. However, these habits cause our bodies to function poorly, effectively lowering productivity. That extra time you spent at your desk without eating a proper meal can slow you down for the rest of the afternoon. Drinking lots of coffee and sugary drinks at work can also make your work suffer when you crash. When your body is working well, your work will improve greatly.

Get enough rest at night. A huge loss in productivity is caused by presenteeism, the concept that people are at work but are not working to their full potential due to exhaustion, illness, or other problems. Getting enough sleep at night can improve health, help you lose weight, and improve focus dramatically. You will feel less stressed and will be able to accomplish more on a full night's rest.

Keep your work area clean. Germs are everywhere and are very easily transferred. Keep hand sanitizer at your work station as well as some antibacterial wipes that you can use to clean up at least once a month. Your mouse, keyboard, and phone can harbor contaminants, and wiping them clean from time to time will help to keep preventable sicknesses away.

Stay home when you are not well. If you are sick, coming in to the office can be a catastrophe, as you can infect the rest of your colleagues. It is tempting to come in to work and suffer through the day so as not to fall behind or use up valuable sick days, but this is inconsiderate and will end up reducing your team's productivity in the long run, as more people could miss days from catching your illness. Take the time to get better at home.

Managers should be aware of the various pitfalls at work that can lead to an unhealthy staff. Encourage your team to have healthy habits and give them some slack to be able to take the time they need to be well. This will cause productivity to soar and will lead to a happier staff that will work well together and have less unnecessary stress.

Readers: What measures do you take to remain healthy during your work day?

"Coping" with Obamacare

In last week's TradePost, we discussed the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and how it affects American businesses of all sizes (TradePost, 4/4/13).

This week, we'll focus more on those businesses that have more than 50 full-time-equivalent employees on the payroll and the way they can mitigate the financial and administrative burden posed by the legislation once the "pay or play" election requirements take effect on January 1, 2014. Under Obamacare, those companies will either have to offer expensive health care coverage to their employees or pay a $2,000 - $3,000 fine (after tax) per employee.

Experts agree that the best strategic solution can be summed up in two words... temporary staffing.

On a recent episode of his CNBC show Mad Money, financial analyst Jim Cramer noted that the demand for temps is mushrooming, "fueled in part by the pending implementation of Obamacare." He says:

"Businesses of all sizes are searching for ways to cope with this law, and the easiest way to avoid paying these expenses is to hire more temps."

It's a matter of math. To avoid the Obamacare penalties, or the requirement to provide health insurance to all its employees, companies can shed its employees and hire temporary workers through a staffing firm -- enough to lower their direct payroll to under 50 full-time employees.

Similarly, large employers can hire temps instead of full-time employees to perform work; the costs of paying a staffing firm's bill rate are usually significantly below the high costs of providing health insurance for employees, especially since health insurance costs are projected to increase by 8% next year, according to Milliman Medical Index.

According to Cramer, "Companies need to start making their adjustments now," due to the 12-month look back (measuring) period that starts on January 1, 2014. Not only will costs start to increase on that date, but heavy expectations for administrative reporting and compliance will take effect as well. The American Action Form estimates that the new law will create 111 million hours of paperwork burden in first three years (The Hill, 3/25/13).

The Select Family of Staffing Companies has studied the potential effects of the Affordable Care Act carefully. With 350,000 employees W-2d last year, Select has a strong vested interest in understanding how this legislation will impact its clients. Your Select representative will gladly discuss the practical and strategic steps your business should be taking now to position yourself for full compliance and minimization of financial exposure. To have someone contact you about what your company can do, please email us at tradepost@selectfamily.com.

Readers – will you add temps to your staff or offset your current staff to a temporary agency to mitigate the financial burden of the Affordable Care Act?

Smokers, Obese to Pay Higher Health Care Premiums

Health care costs are on the rise, and it appears that smokers and overweight people will pay the biggest price. With rates now 31% higher than five years ago, with an anticipated 5-8% increase in 2012, employers are looking at ways to cut the costs – and who better to put it back on than the unhealthy?

Wellness Programs

As a first response to rising prices, many employers started offering wellness programs to get their employees healthier and drive back down the prices. These programs included free gym memberships, bonuses for participating in the program and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and other incentives. Unfortunately, many employees did not take the bait – and too few took advantage of the programs. As a result, some employers decided to stick it back to their employees and mandate the unhealthy to pay higher premiums and deductibles.

Smokers and the Obese

Employers are looking hard and fast at ways to cut costs, and smokers are among their new targets. Despite the decrease in smoking rates in the past years, 46.6 million (20.6%) Americans still call themselves smokers. (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011) Meanwhile, 33.8% of all Americans qualify as obese.

With tobacco users consuming 25% more health care services than non-tobacco users (Reuters, 10/31/11), it seems like an obvious place to start cutting costs. And a few major corporate citizens are leading the charge.

Scott's Miracle-Grow adopted a "tobacco free" policy in 2006, preventing them from hiring tobacco users in certain states. Starting in 2012, retail giant Walmart will raise the insurance premiums for employees who smoke - all while providing their workers a smoking cessation program.

Veridian Credit Union in Waterloo, Iowa have decided to target overweight employees as well as smokers, recently announcing that they will, in 2013, begin passing on higher insurance premiums to their employees who smoke and are obese. It is time for workers to get their cholesterol levels down and take control of their obesity – or else they will be paying for their unhealthy habits through higher premiums.

So Why Care?

A large majority of the obese are lower income – people who do not have access to or cannot afford gyms, fitness classes, or fresh food. Added costs of higher premiums and deductibles just makes leading a healthier lifestyle that much more inaccessible to them.

And what about those who are, due to health reasons, unable to lower their cholesterol and maintain a healthy weight? Policies raising health rates for the obese will have to take into account and provide an exception for these people.

Hiking premiums for the unhealthy causes employees to become more accountable for their actions outside of work, and some argue this reduces their personal freedoms (Reuters, 10/31/11). However, should employers have to absorb the added health care costs for their employees that make unhealthy choices? Today's economy makes it now so they do not have to. With high unemployment rates and an abundance of applicants for every position, employers are able to get away with being less generous.

Readers: Business owners, will you be raising health care premiums for workers that are unhealthy?

At What Cost Health Care?

Although facelifts are not typically covered by standard medical plans, President Barack Obama's relatively new health care legislation is forcing employers to make over many aspects of the way they provide benefits to employees.

Employers have already had to make some immediate adjustments to health plans--including covering adult children up to the age of 26--and have started to look at what other kinds of changes will have to be made in the near future, such as complying with modified claim-reporting guidelines. And since the U.S. Supreme Court recently rejected a plea from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to fast-track its review of the constitutionality of the Obama administration's new plan, do not expect to be going back to the way things were any time soon. (Chicago Sun Times - 04/25/11)

As is traditionally the case with federally mandated laws, the high court will allow the sweeping legislation to simmer in federal appeals courts to get a sense of the findings there before welcoming the case as early as summer 2012. While the focus of the suit is targeted on the mandate for citizens to acquire health insurance or else be penalized by 2014, employers in the meantime have other concerns with which to cope while the law's constitutionality is debated in the legal system. A big focus will be on reviewing currently contracted plans to determine whether they will comply or be flexible enough to be made compatible in addition to hunting down new plans that will be cost effective yet still attractive to retain and attract quality employees. (Chicago Sun Times - 04/25/11)

The Benefits of Benefits
Even though a recent study shows that most employees have no idea how valuable their benefits package actually is, the quality of their medical, dental, and retirement coverage is far and away the most important thing a potentially new employee considers after salary. And no, that's not just older employees who tend to use the health care system more--it's younger employees as well. (SHRM – 04/20/11)

While in 2010, up to about 4 million small businesses were to become eligible for a tax credit to ensure their ability to insure employees, all signs point to the likelihood that the new legislation will lead to higher costs per plan for most companies. Many employers plan to shift most of those extra costs to employees, so finding the most cost-effective, comprehensive plans is critical to keep current employees happy and to compete for the best candidates to fill new positions. Some companies reportedly will also eliminate providing health care to retirees in order to save money, so maintaining this option could potentially offer a worthwhile competitive advantage.

In a poll taken by CNN, nearly 7 out of 10 companies said that they plan to offset their extra costs by increasing employee contributions for each dependent covered on the plan. With the implementation of the new law extending the age dependents are eligible to remain on their parents' insurance to 26, employees have already started adding dependents to their plans, which in turn could end up costing those employees even more. (CNNMoney.com – 03/10/11)

So when you decide to take the scalpel to your benefits packages, remember that it's not just about the bottom line. While the Supreme Court waits to "operate," employees are watching closely to see what comes of the new legislation and how employers respond. The choices employers make in the wake of the new legislation can affect the ability to retain and attract the best workers in your industry.

As an employer, how do you feel about the Affordable Care Act? Is there another way to mitigate the potential extra costs that come along with some parts of the plan?

For more information on the legislation itself, the Obama administration has set up a special website at www.healthcare.gov, which includes a timeline to see what parts of the law have been implemented and what is yet to come.

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